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Care review: Radical reset for children's social care is now unavoidable

There will be approaching 100,000 children in care and a flawed children’s social care system will cost over £15 billion per year by this time next year unless radical reform happens urgently, the independent review of children’s social care has stated.

The system is currently increasingly skewed to crisis intervention, with outcomes for children that continue to be unacceptably poor and costs that continue to rise.

“This moment is a once in a generation opportunity to reset children’s social care. What we need is a system that provides intensive help to families in crisis, acts decisively in response to abuse, unlocks the potential of wider family networks to raise children, puts lifelong loving relationships at the heart of the care system and lays the foundations for a good life for those who have been in care,” said the review.

The report recommends:

  • A ‘revolution’ in family help
  • A just and decisive child protection system
  • Unlocking the potential of family networks
  • Fixing the broken care market and giving children a voice
  • Five ambitious missions are needed so that care experienced people secure: loving relationships; quality education; a decent home; fulfilling work and good health as the foundations for a good life
  • Realising the potential of the workforce
  • A system that is relentlessly focused on children and families

The reform should be delivered at pace and with determination through a single five year reform programme. A Reform Board should be established to drive this programme, including people with lived experience of children's social care.

Family help

The review recommends introducing one category of “Family Help” to replace “targeted early help” and “child in need” work, providing families with much higher levels of meaningful support. Multi-disciplinary teams would deliver the new service made up of professionals such as family support workers, domestic abuse workers and mental health practitioners – who would work alongside social workers, provide support and cut down on referring families onto other services. The Family Help teams would be based in community settings, like schools and family hubs.

Child protection system

“Whilst the risk of harm to children cannot be eliminated, the system of child protection can and must do better for children,” said the report.

The review suggests the introduction of an Expert Social Work Practitioner role and those experts will have demonstrated their knowledge and skills through time in practice, and in the future by completing a five year Early Career Framework.

Where concerns about significant harm of a child emerge, the experts should co-work alongside the Family Help Team and have responsibility for making key decisions. This co-working will provide an expert second perspective and remove the need for break points and handovers.

The review highlights that there should be a more tailored and coherent response is needed to harms outside of the home, such as county lines, criminal or sexual exploitation or abuse between peers. The report recommends a bespoke child protection pathway – through a Child Community Safety Plan – so that the police, social care and others can provide a robust child protection response.

Family networks

The independent review highlights that already thousands of grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters who care for their family members including kinship care. However, this group of carers are a silent and unheard majority in the children’s social care system and they need far greater recognition, and support.

Before decisions are made which place children into the care system, more must be done to bring wider family members and friends into decision making. This should start with a high quality family group decision making process that invites families to come up with a family led plan to care for the child or children. In some cases, this should lead to a “Family Network Plan”, where a local authority can fund and support family members to care for the child.

Broken care market

Providing care for children should not be based on profit, the report states. It urges local authorities to take back control of this system through establishing new Regional Care Cooperatives (RCCs)., which will take on responsibility for the creation and running of all new public sector fostering, residential and secure care in a region, as well as commissioning all not-for-profit and private sector provided care for children as necessary.

Foster carers should be given the support networks and training they need to provide the best care for children, and there should be greater trust in foster carers making the day to day decisions which affect children’s lives.

The review outlines that it is paramount that children have a powerful voice in the decisions that affect them and truly independent advocacy should be established for children that is opt-out, rather than opt-in.

Five ‘missions’ for care experienced people

Five ambitious missions are needed so that care experienced people secure: loving relationships; quality education; a decent home; fulfilling work and good health as the foundations for a good life.

Central government and local authorities, employers, the NHS, schools, colleges and universities must step up to secure these foundations for all care experienced people. This will require a wider range of organisations to act as corporate parents for looked after children, and the UK should be the first country in the world to recognise the care experience as a protected characteristic, the review states.

Realising the potential of the workforce

The professional development offered to social workers should be “vastly improved” with training and development which provides progression through a five year Early Career Framework linked to national pay scales. This new framework will provide a desirable career pathway to remain in practice, specialise and be rewarded through higher pay that reflects expertise.

Barriers which needlessly divert social workers from spending time with children and families, should be identified and removed. This should include action on:

  • Improving case management systems
  • Reducing repetitive administrative tasks
  • Embedding multidisciplinary teams at the heart of local communities who can deliver, not just commission, the help that is needed.
  • Social work managers, leaders and academics should be required to continue working directly with children and families so that the whole system is rooted in the realities of practice.
  • The use of agency social work, which is costly and works against providing stable professional relationships for children and families, should be reduced.

The importance of a wider workforce that supports children and families and includes, but is not limited to, family support workers and children’s home staff should not be forgotten the report says. Action is needed to improve the knowledge and skill of these crucial workforces so that they can provide better help and care for children and families.

A system that is relentlessly focused on children and families

“There is currently a lack of national direction about the purpose of children’s social care and national government involvement is uneven. A National Children’s Social Care Framework is needed to set the direction and purpose for the system, supported by meaningful indicators that bring transparency and learning. The government should appoint a National Practice Group, to build practice guides that would set out the best known ways of achieving the objectives set by the National Framework,” said the report.

The government also needs to intervene more decisively in inadequate and drifting authorities, with permanent Regional Improvement Commissioners to oversee progress across regions. Green shoots of good work on data and technology should be mainstreamed through a National Data and Technology Taskforce, which would support three priority actions:

  1. Drastically reducing social worker time spent recording cases
  2. Enabling frictionless sharing of information
  3. Improving data collection and its use in informing decisions.

“There is a great deal of implementation that can be initiated by the government now, ahead of new investment.6 However, achieving this whole system reform programme will require £2.6 billion of new spending over four years, comprising £46 million in year one, £987 million in year two, £1.257 billion in year three and £233 million in year four. The government may well provide details of different or better ways to achieve the same ambitions and aims in their response to this review, but the costs of inaction are too high. The time for a reset is now, and there is not a moment to lose,” the report concluded.

The independent review of children’s social care: Final Report

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